Making the Case for Golf

PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka talks about how meeting planners can make the most of golf-related events.

Being the chief executive officer of the world's largest working sports organization gives Joe Steranka a unique perspective on how golf fits into the world of meetings, incentives, and event planning. As The PGA of America's CEO, Steranka oversees a membership that numbers more than 28,000 men and women PGA professionals—a group responsible for hosting hundreds of thousands of golf-related meetings, events, and outings each year.

Under Steranka's leadership, the PGA has become proactive in proving the financial importance of golf through a series of economic impact studies at the state and local levels. Steranka has nearly three decades of sports management and marketing experience, including stints working for NBA teams before joining the PGA staff in 1988.

Steranka recently sat down with PGA Magazine to discuss how PGA professionals can help bring value to business meetings and events, and how golf can be a thriving part of the business world despite the current economic climate.

PGA Magazine: How would you describe the business of golf to someone outside the sport?

Joe Steranka:
I would describe golf as a $76 billion per year industry that is a catalyst for so many different segments of the American economy. When we talk about golf, what we're really talking about is a loose coalition of small businesses that all share a common approach to the game and its values. We're also talking about a recreational and social experience that works from a business-to-consumer standpoint and—just as important—as a business-to-business platform.

From your perspective, how important is golf to the business of meetings, conventions, and incentive travel?

Golf is a unique experience in that it includes teambuilding, accommodates players of a variety of skill levels, and delivers on the insatiable appetite most business professionals have for self-development.

The format of a group of golfers playing together delivers the teambuilding experience. Over the course of nine or 18 holes, each member of the team is going to contribute in some positive way, shape, or form—whether it's hitting a long drive, making a putt, or just encouraging their teammates. A PGA professional can help a meeting planner choose a format of competition that is appropriate to the skill levels within a group, set up the tees in a manner so that beginning players make a contribution, and create the pairings that will make for a memorable experience.

Golf also shines as a way for businesspeople to feed their appetite for self-development. This can take place as PGA professionals share nuggets of information about the economic, human, and environmental impact of our sport. Every businessperson is interested in things that provide jobs. They'll be interested to know that golf is responsible for more than two million jobs that create $61 billion of wages in our country. Not a lot of people know it, but golf is bigger than the motion picture industry. It's a game, but it has a real human and financial impact.

What's the overall economic impact of golf and what part do meetings and business golf play in that?

Like meetings, conventions, and incentive travel, golf touches not only the golf facilities where the game is played. In fact, the induced impact almost triples from $76 billion to $195 billion when you look at all the other businesses that benefit indirectly from golf. When people are organizing meetings around golf, they are reaching out into the community. Of course, these meetings help the busboys, waitresses, valet car parkers, and maintenance staff benefiting from having an outing that adds more hours to their work weeks and allows them to raise their wages. But that same event is also benefiting the suppliers—florists, liquor distributors, caterers. These are the small businesses that a golf course relies upon, the vendors that fulfill services for an event for a corporate customer. Golf business isn't just business-to-consumer; it's also business-to-business, and it resonates across a whole host of industries.

Golf has a bad reputation in some circles. What's your response to critics of the game?

If you're looking for a sport that does good and is good for you, golf delivers. Golf is good from the standpoint of the 140,000 golf-related charitable events that raise more than $3 billion every year in the U.S. It's good for you because you do burn a lot of calories playing—even if you're just riding in a golf cart for 18 holes. On the environmental side, golf is a very efficient user of natural resources. It's a big user of recycled water—golf course turf acts as a great cleansing agent for reclaimed water that returns water to the water table at a cleaner level than it previously was.

What's the ROI of golf for business, both in terms of business and in the human element—making contacts, teambuilding, exercise and recreation, etc?

Bank of America is known as one of the largest sponsors of sports marketing. It has done research that shows every dollar spent on sporting events drives $10 of gross revenue and $3 of earnings. At the PGA of America, we feel golf is the most efficient use of sports marketing. It combines the entertainment element of the game—watching the greatest players in the sport week in and week out—with the participation element of playing the game. I think you can look at it as a unique, beneficial way to spend a few hours in a relationship-building environment with customers or employees. Over this time spent outside in the fresh air, you have the opportunity to learn about their families, other affiliations in the community, how their business is doing—you get to know their style and the type of people they employ and how they do business. This all happens very naturally through the game of golf.

Time is so important. How can PGA professionals help spend it efficiently and effectively?

PGA professionals are experts at helping identify different formats for enjoying the game. It doesn't have to be a full 18-hole round. You can play nine holes and be done in two hours. If you have a group where only half the players are strong golfers, you can have foursomes with two advanced players and two beginners who just putt. However you structure the event, everybody is outdoors walking or riding and getting the exercise that comes with golf. In today's world, to build in some entertaining form of physical activity is helpful for the body and the mind.

And remember that golf-related events don't all need to take place at a faraway location where a lot of travel time is required. You can have a great experience close to home, and it's as simple as going to a local course and working with the PGA professional there.

Originally published May 1, 2009

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